charles rangeley-wilson – writing about fishing, travel, rivers, conservation

He Knew a Good Place

I hear that the great Clive Gammon has passed away, gone I trust and hope to chase sewin and bass in an even better place. Clive was one of our very best angling writers … and I use the adjective somewhat defiantly because Clive was one of our very best writers too. His prose was simply fabulous. The fact that he chose to write about fishing is, as my pal John Andrews said on the phone last night, just a great gift to those who fish and only a loss to those who don’t.

Here’s the first paragraph from one of his first books: ‘The heavy copper and nickel spoon throbs slowly through the dark water, six feet down and a little above the rotting leaves and pond weed. An impulse from the rod tip swings it in a halting arc past the dim cavern mouth formed by the fallen beech, and as it rises towards the surface, nearing the bank, the leaf-mould on the bottom of the lake swirls away in fragments as a caudal fin, nine inches across, sweeps through the water to thrust the great pike forwards.’

Clive was an English teacher at Pembroke Grammar School at the time he wrote those words, but he often found his attention drifting, so he later confessed, from Macbeth to the V-wakes of a shoal of grey mullet that he could see from the classroom window pushing upstream on the tide. And I guess eventually his attention drifted so far that he put down the chalk one last time, picked up a rod and a suitcase and ended up in America, the fishing, boxing and football correspondent for Sports Illustrated. He worked there for many years, became a US citizen I believe, and I only met him after he had retired and moved back to the Gower peninsula in Wales. Then he started writing for The Field: short, effortlessly evocative features built from plain English and as three-dimensional as a house. Perfect examples of magazine journalism. Clive was the best and I remember thinking at the time how Clive’s language was so comparable with (though not imitative of) Negley Farson’s. Both of them had learned from tight deadlines and fidgety editors, which is a pretty good education. I was in awe I suppose and when we shook hands for the first time, rather intimidated. It was a Christmas drinks bash for contributors and somehow we ended up away from the champagne and beside the beer in a local pub talking about fish and fishing and I didn’t find him intimidating for long.

A few years later Clive asked me to write the forward to a new edition of that early book, Hook, Line and Spinner. It was a massive honour and I spent hours crafting what was always going to be a clunky clatter of a cold engine before the Rolls Royce of the man himself got going, beginning with that paragraph above, which was a sure sign of some shit hot stuff to come.

It continues: ‘On the bank, the angler catches the first glimpse of the gaily gleaming spoon. What he sees next, when the huge shadow swings up behind, showing its depth of primrose and grey flank as it turns and take the bait, leaves him for a moment turned to cold stone, incapable of action.’ Clive never showed off, never alienated his reader with acrobatic language, never intruded with how he felt. He just let you feel it with him. And his deceptively simple style is so evocative. Virginia Woolf once wrote of JW Hill’s words that the writer’s art to is to place a picture in the mind of the reader so real that it becomes the thing itself. Clive Gammon does this as well as anyone: like Hills he lifts you out of your chair and stands you on the river beside him. Because of his gift generations to come will stand there with him and in this way, if in no other, Clive will be immortal. But I’m not so pessimistic. I fancy there’s also a sewin river in that Good Place where the nights are dark as ink and the fish are bloody hard to catch. And that Clive is there right now, wondering what fly to use.

Clive sent me a note in a leather bound edition of Hook, Line and Spinner. It read ‘I have reserved a 12lb sewin for you in the Towy. All you have to do is catch it!’ I haven’t yet, but I will try again this summer and maybe this time, with Clive watching over my efforts, I’ll succeed.

Tight lines Clive.

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